Alice and Martin

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Alice and Martin is another example of a now-familiar French film genre, the elliptical chamber piece, wherein the emphasis is on the interactions of a handful of characters while the narrative crawls along with a series of starts and stops. It’s a delicate mixture of closely observed emotional changes and the foiling of conventional plotting, and when it jells, as in Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September (1998) or André Téchiné’s My Favorite Season (1993), it offers the kind of complicated pleasure one might derive from a densely layered novel.

But Alice and Martin, which Téchiné directed and co-wrote with Assayas, never quite jells. Its central story concerns the love between Martin (Alexis Loret), a disturbed young man who may or may not have killed his father, and Alice (Juliette Binoche), an ostensibly more mature but emotionally guarded woman. The two meet through Alice’s gay roommate Benjamin, who happens to be Martin’s half-brother (and who is played by Mathieu Amalric — an actor whose mere presence identifies the film as nouvelle chambre).

Alice is at first, understandably, annoyed by Martin and then, inexplicably, deeply in love with him. When she becomes pregnant with his child, it triggers a psychic meltdown in the already unstable young man and leads her on a quest into his past, to uncover a secret we’ve long ago surmised.

The movie is less straightforward than that summary might suggest and, since it presents one of its main characters as a puzzle to be solved, the usually tantalizing asides of the genre come to seem like tedious impediments. Benjamin, for example, is an initially intriguing character but after a while you just wonder why he’s still hanging around. Alice’s career as a violinist seems to signify the passion lurking beneath her wan exterior, but all it leads to are some padding passages of local color. And it doesn’t help that while Binoche suggests someone with reserves of well-nursed sadness, Loret is something of a lump — the chemistry between them is nil.

Too much happens to too little effect and the melodramatic bits don’t mesh with the slice-of-life parts. It would seem that even the scriptwriters were a little embarrassed by the overheated denouement of the final flashback, since they extend the film an extra 20 minutes or so until they could achieve the proper tone of being sophisticatedly open-ended.

It all adds up to that rarity, an intelligent movie that stumbles over its own knowingness.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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